Ghana’s Independence Day, March 6th, started with a dramatic sky very reminiscent of the movie of the same name. Mom had just left, we were back at the Accra Mall and I was in a bit of a slump. A huge storm arrived at 8am and it rained all day, which must have put dampers on the presidential parade at the stadium, although that was probably preferable to lines of schoolchildren fainting in the sun as I heard radio callers complaining of at last year’s event. You can’t fault Ghanaians for patriotism – national pride is evident and their iconic black star flag is everywhere.
After school, our kids got all dressed up to go in the mall. Zola was so excited to put on long trousers and socks! I pulled out my Xmas boots and off we cruised. I lasted 45 minutes. There was nothing to do! Someone could make a killing offering more than shops, movies and overpriced junk food. Why on earth is there no comedy, theatre or live music venue in there?
But it seems there’s so little to do in Accra that the mall was completely packed. By 7pm the pong of raw sewage began to hang over the carpark – apparently the system overflows when the place is full. Many thanks to Belinda, as it was her gift of lavender oil drops on our pillows that saved us that night!
Our consolation was that there were packets of Beacon ‘Mint and Creamy’ chocolate-covered toffees, which were selling for 8Cedi each in Shoprite, on special in GAME for only 1Cedi (R5). On a long-haul low-budget journey, it’s things like this that can make your month. Ruby bought ten.
I also discovered the marvel that is Sandra’s Adagio – sounds like a cheap tart, but is in fact a tub of chocolate ice cream slathered in rich chocolate sauce, which is imported from Moldova of all places, and doesn’t make me sick. Rad indeed.
It seemed a sensible moment to troupe through the dentist’s rooms of the charming Dr. Harry Glover for a check-up. All thanks to LIBERTY HEALTH, who had just extended our pan-African BLUE Platinum insurance for another year, bless them. We would not have attempted this continental-wide adventure without the reassurance of their comprehensive cover.
In addition, GAME sponsored us 600C worth (R3000) of hardware, allowing Sampson to restock the Big Green Truck’s toolbox drawers. THANK YOU Dorian Straub and Ben Akutteh!
May blessings also rain upon John Hills of the iShop in Accra Mall who rescued my MacBook Air. He had to reconfigure my entire hard drive, and then figure out how to rescue 5000 contacts missing from my address book. He told me he takes these little problems as a personal challenge; you gotta love that attitude in a techie. Sampson later managed to completely wipe his iPod, and John rescued that as well. The bonus bag of toffees we gave him didn’t go far enough to express the depths of my gratitude for his skill and dedication. THANKS JOHNNY.
I spent a few sweaty hours wrestling with Cote d’Ivoire visa applications. The only way to pay for them is online via credit card and ours had ceased to work as we had been away from SA for more than 3 months. What’s more, the charge was in Euros, and the exchange rate was now R15 to the Euro, and not 10 as when we left, so each visa was costing R825 not R550. Yikes. Nana’s Mastercard came riding to the rescue.
The warmth of South Africans abroad continued to amaze me. After we’d gone to the South African High Commission and met Counsellor Selai Khuele, he started mentioning us to all the ex-pats who were popping in to enquire about election procedures. Invitations started flooding into my inbox – with two braais on the same day! Jo’burger Catherine Landry invited us to her friend’s Chris Fourie’s 50th birthday barbeque, at Dave’s house.
Our other invite came from kind Capetonian Tracy Barry, a vegetarian with compassion, who made delicious gluten-free roast vegetable and rice noodle salads especially for me.
There we met German Danielle and her Turkish guitar-making husband Hete (and yes he did know Mark Waingard from Scarbs) as well as a bevy of big South African okes Adrian, Steve, Charles and Jan, an ex-special forces guy who writes poetry, plus lone American, school principal Chèrie.
They were all so welcoming, we felt we couldn’t leave without showing our appreciation and did a quick show, in between the reggae band’s sets. Sampson finished with the Walk of Death over Chris, who was already a bit dizzy from his share of the swinging 5L bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, and probably could have done without the adrenaline rush, but everyone else enjoyed it immensely. Allan, South African husband of Russian Ghanaian Lucy, said it was the best repayal of hospitality he’d ever seen.
Convivial Charles and Mandy Cormack from Ballito invited us back to their palatial home, which had a ballroom-sized reception room with marble floors and a chandelier! Sampson revelled in their icy aircon, while I elected to sleep outside in the truck. Over the next couple of days, I wrestled with the temptations of a proper kitchen, wi-fi and plasma TV – it’s a love/hate relationship. The kids were having a blast with Caitlin, their 12 year old and Ug, Jack and Pixie, their dogs. Mandy lavishes love on them all and was a darling hostess.
Charles works here in construction management and is a gaming addict, with a voice of operatic range and impressive total recall on pop hits across several decades – how many people do you know able to sing A Flock of Seagulls on demand? The following evening, while we devoured his delicious braaied chicken and pineapple, we had a discussion comparing Skrillex with Phil Oakey of the Human League. You know you’re getting old when these intergenerational conversations start happening.
Meanwhile, the admin continued. Ghana Immigration office was the first time on this trip I got played good and proper. I blame PMT for affecting my judgement on our initial visit. A young uniformed guy called Francis whisked me into a scruffy open plan office, explained that before I could apply for an extension, there was a new law that stated that non-nationals had to buy an ID for $120 each. I’d seen adverts about this in the Ghanaian embassy in Lomé, but was pretty sure it was not applicable to non-residents. We could have got a 3 month visa in Cotonou without it, so why did we need one now? He said leave it with him, he’d make a plan. In the meantime, I paid the standard 120Cedis for a 2 month extension for each of us (R1920 in all) and left.
When I checked with Jacky Kruger at the SAHC, she confirmed that indeed the ID was unnecessary for travellers, so I phoned Francis to tell him I wouldn’t be bringing any more cash. He sheepishly acceded. However, when I went back to collect our passports, they had been stamped with only a month extra, rather than two – Francis had dated the extension from the date of my submission, rather than the date of the expiry of the month we’d initially paid for. He insisted this was standard practice; I insisted I hadn’t paid for 2 months’ extension to receive only one and he must sort it out.
It was quite obvious he’d tried to make a quick buck by processing our applications on the side and pocketing the fees; but he was such a charmer, I almost felt sorry that it had backfired so badly and gave him another chance to fix it. But on my fourth trip to Immigration, when Francis wasn’t in the office and said he had our passports with him so I must come to his house, I finally lost patience and went to find his boss. Imagine my embarrassment when I walked next door to discover the real Immigration office, complete with labeled counters, orderly seated queues, ticket machines, and a receipts desk. How stupid of me to not realise that a country of Ghana’s status was bound to have such an efficient central office. I must thank chief official Mr Kojo Oppong-Yeboah for calling ‘Francis’ in, giving him a roasting and speedily sorting it all out.
Francis turned out not to be his real name, so I’m not getting him into any more trouble. He phoned nine times trying to get me to meet him before grasping the nettle and going in for his grilling. Even afterwards, he followed me down the road, persistently insisting he was just trying to give me “personal service” rather than trying to make a bit of extra cash by avoiding proper channels. In the end, I abandoned my usual ‘quiet diplomacy’ tack, turned and nailed him right there in the street:
“Look, you lied about the dollars thing, you lied about the extension date thing, I gave you two chances to sort it out – you didn’t, so I went to your boss. We both know I wasted time on four trips here instead of two, but I’ve got my dates, you’ve still got your job and it’s a story for the blog so no hard feelings. So, shake hands, and leave me in peace!”
Tracy and Steve invited us for supper at their cosy place in a brand new townhouse development, crammed with all their furniture, photos and knick-knacks from home. It was wonderful to soak the frustrations of Immigration off in the communal pool and have some fun, playing giant games of tag and piggy-in-the-middle with their daughters Rachel and Cammy. The Barries gave us a fascinating glimpse into their expat world, with tales of trips to SA with empty suitcases which they bring back full of frozen meat and cheese and Woolies’ snacks. Tracy cooked us a fabulous meal of roast chicken and roast potatoes with butternut, beetroot, carrots and broccoli. It was truly a red-letter day. I think we may have shocked them with the extent of our appetites. Bless you guys!
Tracy also arranged a day out for the kids at Rachel and Cammy’s American school, Lincoln Community College. Ruby absolutely loved it. What she liked best was the patient way the children treated each other, never teasing or being mean. “Everyone was allowed to be different, to be themselves” she said, impressed. She was less impressed with the French teacher, who was so dreadful the class were blatantly cheating using Google translate on their MacBook Pros. Her main ambition now is to go to an international school. Zola was also glowing, proud of himself for summoning up the confidence (at the very last minute) to go in to Cammy’s Grade 4 class.
Tractafric continued to support us by referring us to their Ghanaian Mercedes Benz operation, Silver Star Autos Ltd in Tema. We drove there from Accra after 9pm when it takes 45 minutes as opposed to 2 hours in the daytime. We’ve spent at least a month living on garage forecourts during this trip, and I was used to the form by now, so was girding myself for a hard time.
The first morning, I was woken by the revving of a diesel engine; back to normal then. After yoga, I sat and pep-talked the kids: “Right, we’ve got a sweaty few days ahead of us. We’re going to knuckle down and catch up with some school before a wonderful weekend.” That was when the boss Ahmed Farouk offered us the use of a spare air-conditioned office. O happy day!
Meanwhile Sampson was beside himself. Silver Star were not only giving us a free service, they were offering us parts! Their incredible generosity and the knowledge that the Big Green Truck would be in tip top condition to move on made it bearable to live in a garage for ten days. Plus, as well as being the gentlest boss I have ever witnessed at work, Ahmed was the most hospitable host. Not only did he treat us to lunch, his 10 year old twins Osama and Asma made us muffins!
Outside the office, it was so intensely hot, just crossing the throbbing tarmac to walk 100m back to the truck was enough to exhaust me, so I always took an umbrella. Tema is a huge industrial area around Accra’s port, and by the end of the week, everything inside the truck was covered in a layer of black soot. Give me windblown sand and dust any day.
While the Silver Star team worked on Big Reg in the hot hangar, we got stuck into some serious school in the cool. Ahmed’s kind intervention went a long way to helping Ruby catch up on her missed school work: in 3 weeks she’d done 8 weeks of maths, and two thirds of term in most other subjects.
At the weekend, we drove back to Accra for a show Sampson had agreed to do as part of the St Patrick’s Day entertainment at Chris Fourie’s venue, Cuzzy Bro’s. His Kiwi partner chose the Maori expression meaning ‘a mate close as family’ as the name for their expat home-from-home. Cuzzy Bro’s boasts a huge outdoor bar area with several huge screens which were playing three different Six Nations rugby final matches simultaneously as we arrived. We were treated to a delicious meal of South African proportions.
Long experience has taught us that putting a comedian on between rugby and a cover band, when okes have been drinking all day and want to rock out now, is a big mistake. Sadly Sampson didn’t listen to his own warning bells, but was persuaded by Chris’s enthusiasm. Chris was a lot less enthusiastic once Sampson started shouting to make himself heard. The big blokes at the back in the bar were soon grumbling and one came over slurring “Put the band on”. I think it was the shortest set Sampson’s ever done. It was a shame to die in front of the whole crowd we’d met at Dave’s but he can’t complain, he got paid.
Afterwards, there was nothing for it but to take my husband’s hand, and shimmy shamelessly right to the front of the empty dancefloor and get on down to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, as if I was still 25 and hot, not greying and married to a deadbeat comedian. “You wanted the band? Then get up and dance suckers! You have no idea how much braver my husband is than you…” was what I didn’t say, but hoped the crowd at the bar picked up from my defiant boogie.
Within 10 minutes, two more groups had got up to join us, and within 20 the place was jumping. The Sampson-Pearces are renowned party-starters. And finishers. The cover band ‘No Sleep Till Osu’ was great and deserved an appreciative audience. I hope we repaid Chris’s faith and kindness a little by kicking off the dancing at least.
In meantime there had been a silly barney inside between two groups of expat kids, which our two got caught in the middle of. This was unremarkable except it was the first time ever that Zola got angrily indignant on Ruby’s behalf, instead of the other way round. In the face of two much bigger boys insulting her – “They were rude and disrespectful Mom” – he stood up and shouted at them. Zola! Shouted! Everyone was shocked rigid apparently. We were so proud.
To me, expat life in Accra seemed very constrained. In some ways they’re living in a box more than we are. The expat wives of Accra had even less of a clue about the layout of the city than me, as they were constantly chauffeured about. Although many had worthwhile pet projects, such as fundraising to support a village school, they choose mostly to associate with each other rather than socialise with locals. The plush houses and free rent, private school fees, driver and food allowances are undeniably seductive charms, but to me, their beautiful boxes felt a little claustrophobic.
The next day, Sunday, was truly wonderful and one of my most memorable birthdays. I got to spend it at the magnificent five star Labadi Beach Hotel, thanks to Chris and his friend Adrian Landry, the GM, another South African. We were welcomed at reception with chilled lavender-infused hand towels and a flute of fizz. Our rooms were spectacular – the kids were literally jumping up and down with excitement to see duvets and a plasma TV in their room. You could have knocked me down with a feather when we saw ours was a suite, complete with a sofa, two TVs and vast Egyptian cotton-draped bed.
We picnicked with goodies bought earlier from Shoprite, and spent the afternoon in the swimming pools, having fun in the fountains, cuddling in the water and lazing about. I did a lot of floating looking at the sky just breathe just be-ing thinking of Emmanuel and reflecting how lucky I was still to be here. I had a little cry on Sampson’s shoulder. Emmanuel’s death still feels too raw, too unfair.
There was an interesting mix of people by the pool: African and Arab businessmen, and Russian mafia alongside the ubiquitous saggy European ex-pats. When our fingers became like prunes, we went back to our apartments. While my husband cooked us a brown rice and bacon veg surprise in the truck, I spent a divine hour completely alone. A long indulgent shower, a fluffy white robe, an empress-sized bed and absolute quiet to write my diary in peace: priceless.
I was thinking about the huge ‘Repent’ signs we’d seen on the road from Tema and reflecting how fortunate I was that there was nothing I felt I needed to repent for, or regret not doing. How blessed I was to be feeling so good about my life choices right now.
The deeply dull BBC/CNN coverage of the Crimea referendum made me realise how little I’ve been missing the 24 hour news cycle. That evening we watched Zola’s favourite Downton Abbey in between seven power cuts; this staple of African life is something the super-reliable solar power in the truck courtesy of Treetops Renewable Energy Systems makes us immune to.
Half way through, there was a knock at the door: much to the Downton-obsessed kids’ delight, a liveried footman appeared bearing two complementary fruit platters: mango, pineapple, melon balls, kiwi, apple, glacé cherries and, wonder of wonders, STRAWBERRIES. They went down a treat with the Sandra ice cream Sampson had asked reception to stash in the freezer on arrival. Thanks Labadi Beach – I felt like a queen.
Just before bed, the hotel wi-fi allowed me to download my brother’s birthday greetings: an hilarious, slightly croaky rendition of Happy Birthday on the banjo, performed while still in his dressing gown. Cheers Spence! My perfect day was crowned by learning how to survive aircon at long last – if I set it at 31˚C then I don’t feel ill, but it doesn’t get humid either. It was awesome to be able to cuddle under cool sheets… Plus Sampson had downloaded the latest Radio 4 News Quiz to doze off to – joy!
Labadi Beach Hotel does the best breakfast spread of all time. Though I could only have fruit and yoghurt, the lemon for my hot water did come in a muslin bag to stop pips falling in your cup when you squeezed it – how terribly civilised! The others tucked into a full English fry-up followed by pancakes with condensed milk toffee sauce. Big-hearted South African Chef Gary Lane came out to chat with us; he’s worked in 8 countries in 20 years, so he knows what it’s like to travel. The best birthday present of all was that he gave Sampson a biodiesel contact that he supplies with his kitchen’s used cooking oil. Labadi Beach also donated 175L for the Big Green Truck.
Before leaving, General Manager Adrian Landry regaled us with some lurid stories of his eight years in Ghana. Being in charge of a grand hotel like this means you get to see “the soft yellow underbelly of the snake of society – the old colonials, the new money, the pimps and the prostitutes all come here”. Tales of naked businessmen and dead diplomats with cocaine and hookers in their rooms vied with portraits of pretentious hoteliers trying to keep up with the status of their guests rather than remembering they are in the service industry. One manager he knew had twelve different watches, and three changes of suit per day!
As Sampson drove to the Cote d’Ivoire embassy to pick up our visas, he was stung repeatedly by a flying ant all down his back inside his shirt, and had to pull over in the middle of a busy main road in Osu. Before he could get the Anthasan out of the First Aid kit, he was shaking from the shock and adrenaline, much worse than with the petit scorpion in Benin. We moved on to the Liberian embassy, where the woman at reception followed the recent pattern of giving me a hard time about everything for the first hour (I had to fetch copies of the Minister’s Letter for each of our applications and argue with her about arbitrarily-arrived-at exchange rates for the $100 each fee) and then being as nice as pie. I was very glad for the Cuzzy Bro’s door takings – they just about covered it.
Mrs Niceaspie said we had to have an interview, and I said, as it was closing time, we’d sleep outside till the morning. Half an hour later, she appeared outside the truck to invite us in. First secretary Mrs Florence Browne couldn’t bear the thought of the children having to sleep here. I had to produce proof of adoption papers for the first time, and Ms. Browne was not impressed by the lack of socialisation for children away from school, but my argument about taking them to see ‘real Africa’ persuaded her and she stamped us out with a bonus 6 months visa, rather than 3 months, by 5pm! We ate supper during rush hour and were back in Tema by 10pm.
My husband’s birthday present was an offer of two weeks off teaching so I could catch up with the blog. I’m still waiting for this to materialise… Back at Silver Star in ‘our’ office, the kids were bowling along with their school work.
In the second week, Big Reg was marooned on the forecourt without a radiator, so there was no means of escape. It’s a good job I have been prepared for a trucklife of making things go further by my thrifty Dad, who has a reputation verging on snoep, as they say in SA. I admit to getting a kick out of eking out the rations and still making food a) healthy and b) fun for the kids, by adding turmeric and raisins to the rice for example, or making up silly puddings. Kind Mandy had given us two huge bags of pap, which taste of home the kids adored, even for afters with jam or honey.
Tema was historic as the setting for the eating of The Last Ricecake. Bakali had kindly sponsored me 3 boxes (+/- 100 packets) which I had made last for nearly nine months, although the final few packets were decidedly chewy, having been hanging in the nets above our heads through many humid weeks. Ricecakes are not easily come across in African markets; indeed we didn’t see any for sale until Shoprite in Accra. Thus Bakali’s donation made a huge contribution to my capacity to survive this far. THANKS BAKALI – eggy rice cakes rule.
In the cool of one evening, Zola and I trekked to the nearest market while Ruby was catching up Natural Science with Dad. We waked 20 minutes through heavy lorry traffic picking our way around the filthy sewers, Zola pointing out the rats. We allowed ourselves to take a taxi back with our two bulging bags of veg and a pallet of eggs.
The call to prayer from the local mosque floated over the walls five times a day as did the sounds of the local nightclub on Friday night and the church choirs Saturday and Sunday morning.
At the weekend the office was locked up so there was no aircon to shelter from the bruising heat, but the good news was that the uninterrupted wi-fi was fantastic. Sitting in the airless workshop, Ruby was able to research X Factor finals from around the world and Taylor Swift’s entire oeuvre while Zola played Friv.
Although the concrete was vibrating with heat, and I thought I would melt, Silver Star’s wi-fi gave me an opportunity to catch up with several friends on Facebook live chat. This gave me the same feeling I used to have while travelling in Asia over 20 years ago, when I’d pick up 4 or 5 letters from friends and family simultaneously at a Post Restante: the culminative effect of a sudden plunge back into The World of Others was quite disorientating. While I keenly miss my loved ones, I’m also realising how exhausting a place that can be. Trucklife allows me to be far more selfish and focus solely on my family – which is exactly why Tracy told me she’s enjoying Accra’s expat life: it’s a gift of a short time to concentrate on just you four. I get it. We’re all living in a box.
Loading one blog in the outside hanger took all day until dark. The mossies were so vicious, they were biting me through my socks, and I had to put trainers on!
On Sunday, Chef Gary’s contact Irishman Kieran Lavery brought us 250L of bio-diesel – what a hero. His company MAYANAR makes it to run tractors, vehicles, and a generator on their farm at Ho-Volta on the Togo border, as well as providing fuel for the surrounding communities. He told us that six years ago diesel was 95 pesoas per L, now it was 2.6 Cedi.
We are supremely grateful, as without his generous gesture we would not have been able to carry on with our Guinness World Record attempt for the longest journey on alternative fuel.
The stiflingly heat, of course, proved to be prior to a big rain. The storm was huge, with a wind so strong it rocked the truck, rain hammering down so hard we had to close all the windows, and lightening that scared even me. In the morning, Sampson asked Zola to jump out and put the aluminium ladder down. A power cable had been left out in the rain, and he got such a shock. I was very cross with his Dad for not checking…
Meanwhile, in ten days, Silver Star Auto Ltd. had given us the works: a full service, a reconditioned radiator, new fan belts, new hoses for the hydraulic system, extra headlights, a new wing mirror and bags of spare bolts. They fixed faulty tail lights, body work on the wheel arch, a leaking stainless steel fuel tank, and sealed the leaking hub. They took apart our winch (and found it’s a water-damaged write-off), replaced the broken bolt on the top alternator (discovered when the radiator came out), freed the sticky brushes on our 12V water pump, welded the bull bar and put safety chains under the prop shaft. They even got the dent out of the door put in by Thumper George.
Ahmed’s final gift was to send the truck out for a power clean. It was a long time since it was last done in the Congo, and the difference was staggering. When we drove out of Tema, lorry drivers were honking at us and waving in greeting. Before that Big Reg had been blending in and no one had noticed!
Driving in and out of Accra, we got into the habit of stopping at the Awutu Breku market. Awutu’s most famous son is footballer Michael Essien, who plays for Chelsea as well as the Black Stars. When we caught a glimpse of these huge portraits, including one of Essien, we stopped the truck to take a look.
Gilbert Forson works in many mediums, but most impressive were his acrylics with sand, giving a 3D perspective. We also met the lovely Ebenezer, stitching these ceremonial leather shoes by hand at a roadside stall.
On our final trip to Accra mall, we did a mega-stock-up at Shoprite, so the food cupboard under the bench was completely full again with tinned tomatoes, chickpeas, baked beans, sardines, spaghetti, even some gluten-free fusilli! The first load lasted nine months, so I hope we’ll be OK for emergency supplies until Europe.
None of the local or international schools we emailed took us up on our offer to do a show/mini expo, and no journalist managed to fulfill an appointment with us either. Admittedly we were only in town around two public holidays, Independence Day and Easter, but it still provides more evidence for the laidback-to-the-point-of-comatose Ghanaian vibe.
Friendly people we met in the Accra Mall carpark:
On our final day in Accra, Selai volunteered to deliver the parcel sent to us via the Diplomatic Bag thanks to the Dept of Arts and Culture. This gesture was such a gift as it meant we could avoid missioning to the SAHC in the truck and beat the holiday weekend traffic out of town. The parcel contained the long awaited Olympus OMD EM5 camera, which Tudortech had generously sent to replace the one we had stolen in Pointe Noire, and a replacement Leatherman for the one Sampson had broken. Hooray!
While we were opening our goodies, self-confessed Francophone “diaspora people” Camerounian Suzanne and Togolese husband Koffi Sotome turned up outside, and we had such a lovely chat. As a 10 year old kid in 1982, Suzanne travelled with her Dad and his friend from Paris to Douala in a car!
She’s a border transport expert and says Semi/Kraké is the worst crossing in Africa; he’s an engineer with a special interest in solar so we had lots to share. Ghana had a 72% electricity price hike last year, so perhaps Treetops Renewable Energy Systems should look at expansion to Accra? Her dream is to build a holiday cabin from a container on their plot at Abri, and turn a skip into a swimming pool! I loved her energy and wished we could be firm friends.
On opening my Mom’s box, I was flummoxed to find flour everywhere. Mom had decided to throw in a gluten-free pancake mix, forgetting the parcel would travel unpressurised in the hold. It was fun getting flour out of the toy cars she’d squeezed in around school books for Zola…